On Jan. 1, the average rate will rise from 36.9 cents for each hour worked to 47.6 cents. Even with a 29 percent rate increase, Washington's rate will still be among the lowest in the nation. It is also well below the 40.5 percent increase proposed by the department in September.
Gov. Gary Locke called for the lower rate hike to help businesses suffering in the current economic downturn. L&I Director Gary Moore said the lower rate is also in response to public testimony urging the department to phase-in the increase over a longer time period.
"I am pleased to see Labor and Industries is adopting a much lower rate to help soften the impact on Washington businesses," Locke said. "While the agency has stated the need to raise the rate after eight years of reductions and reimbursements, we also need to do what we can to lessen the burden on our state's businesses in these tight economic times."
The new rate will add $265 million of additional premiums to the workers' compensation system, bringing revenues more in line with the cost of the benefits paid to workers injured on the job. In recent years, rates were reduced because of strong investment earnings. In 1999 and 2000, L&I returned dividend checks to employers totaling $400 million. In addition, over the past eight years, employers and workers benefited from $1.4 billion in rate reductions and deferred rates. All told, employers and workers benefited by $1.8 billion.
Along with the rate increase, L&I has begun a series of initiatives to improve the performance of the workers' compensation system. The initiatives fall into two categories - those that will need legislative approval to be adopted, and those that can be accomplished by the department under existing law.
The department's legislative initiatives will be in the areas of hearing loss, vocational rehabilitation and calculation of wages. "None of these proposals will deprive Washington's workers of the medical care and income they deserve when they are injured or become ill as a result of their jobs," said Moore. "We have a very complicated workers' comp system, more complex than any other state, and it needs to be improved."
Last summer, Moore formed a work group of experienced claims staff to look critically at the workers' compensation system and propose changes to it. The group came up with several proposals to improve claims management and began implementing them earlier this month.
One area where the agency already has made improvements is in reducing fraud through increased investigations. As a result, millions of dollars have been collected from overpayments to injured workers and medical providers, and from employers who haven't been paying into the insurance system.
L&I manages the industrial insurance system for 163,000 employers and 2 million workers in Washington State. The system provides medical treatment and wage replacement for injured workers, and pension and survivor benefits for the families of workers killed on the job.